I recently reread the Hobbit, and that got me thinking about running a game with that sort of tone and concept. So let’s go about building it.
1: analyze the source material for theme and beats
There are several layers to the Hobbit that I’d have to replicate.
First it is a solid quest adventure. A company of heroes starts in a safe place and travels dangers lands to face a powerful foe for a vast reward. The design of this is helpful because it is, in game terms, a self-imposed railroad: if the players are in this campaign it’s because they want to get to that end goal, so you don’t have to worry about them haring off in some other direction. This makes it very easy to do the external plot as any encounters or locations are things to be dealt with on the way to the adventure, not things that will permanently pull them off track. The adventure’s goal need to have emotional resonance so some if not most of the PCs and also provide a large enough financial incentive that no other reward would tempt them. Finally, it isn’t a ‘plot coupon’ quest – the PCs don’t have to collect a series of items to succeed in the quest. They start with everything they need (the map and key) but they have to learn more about those tools along their quest from major NPCs.
Second it is sort of Bildungsroman in which at least one of the heroes learns that there is more to themselves then they have had cause to explore. Bilbo is obviously the focus of the book (which is why it’s not called “Thorin & Company”) and during his adventures we watch him become a more capable, confident person. If the game is going to feel like the Hobbit we need at least one PC on that sort of an arc. It’s possible, if not likely, that this PC is also the ‘New Jersey’ which is helpful in keeping that arc from dominating spotlight time, since the other PCs are more knowledgeable.
Third, the Hobbit has a clear hierarchy of skill importance: it is better to be sneaky and clever than good in a fight. It is better to be educated and travelled than to be sneaky and clever. Gandalf is powerful not because of his magic (which is highly limited in a traditional RPG sense) but because of his knowledge and connections – he knows the Trolls weaknesses, knows the ways through the goblin caves, is friends with the king of the eagles, knows how to approach Beorn – all of which prove more useful than the ability to fight. Bilbo is useful because can sneak, because he can come up with clever plans, and because he’s able to avoid capture with the first long enough to make use of the second. Thorin is a skilled warrior but those skills only serve him twice – escaping the goblin caves and in the battle of the five armies – while perhaps his best moment is the social conflict where he extracts help from the Master of the Lake Folk. Unlike many other fantasy settings fighting is tertiary in the Hobbit, so the system should be designed to reflect this.
Fourth, and I think this is final, is that the book has a strong theme of Inheritance. The goal of the quest is Thorin’s inheritance of the gold of his grandfather; he never stops letting you know whose son he is and why it matters, which he’s able to parley into the aforementioned social victory with the Lake Folk. Bilbo is driven into this adventure by the blood of his Tookish side, of being the child of a line of Hobbit adventurers. Bard of the Lake Men is a descendent of the old lords of the Dale and as such has their ability to speak to birds, his greater than normal courage and eventually their recovered throne. Unlike more meritocratic settings of farmboys becoming lords by their skill at arms in the Hobbit you are who you came from. It’s in the blood, even if you don’t know it.
So any system design we do will have to be tailored with that in mind. On to the pacing of the book.
The pacing of the book is cozy. Our heroes go on six months’ worth of journeying through very dangerous territory and have a minimal number of encounters. The beat pattern is as follows.
1: Character introduction and exposition (probably the PC creation session)
2: Some travel over moderately difficult lands.
3: An encounter in which all the PCs save the educated & travelled one are captured, and the educated one has to rescue them (trolls).
4: a rest and time for research of the goal and more exposition, made possible by the educated PC (Rivendell)
5: some travel over difficult lands (up the mountains)
6: An encounter in which all the PCs save the educated & travelled one are captured, and the educated one has to rescue them (the goblins).
7: the educated PC and the tough PC fight their way out, the sneaky character is separated and comes up with a sneaky and clever exit for himself. (Gollum)
8: some travel over difficult lands (down the mountain).
9: An encounter in which all the PCs are captured, and a deus ex machina has to rescue them; the educated PC is able to parley this into more assistance (treed by the worgs and rescued by the eagles).
10: a rest and time for research of the goal and more exposition, made possible by the educated PC
11: some travel over difficult lands with several obstacles (inside mirkwood with the sleeping stream, the lack of supplies and the elf courts) mostly overcome via learning from prior exposition.
12: An encounter in which all the PCs save the sneaky one are captured, and the sneaky one has to rescue them (spiders).
13: An encounter in which all the PCs save the sneaky one are captured (captured by wood elves).
14: The sneaky one has to rescue them, and learns things while so doing (wood elves).
15: Some travel over difficult lands (downriver in the barrels).
16: A rest and time for research of the goal and more exposition, made possible by the tough PC based on his inheritance (lake town).
17: Some travel over difficult lands with several obstacles overcome via prior exposition.
18: First encounter with the monster at the end of the quest by the sneaky person.
19: Second encounter with the monster at the end of the quest; PCs nearly die, saved by plans of the sneaky PC.
20: quest takes sudden turn when someone else kills monster. Things shift to a social conflict and an impasse, which is broken by clever PC.
21 Great big fight where tough PC leads the charge and sacrifices self for the good of all. Even still the outcome of final battle determined by deus ex machina twice over (the eagles and Beorn).
22: Dénouement and return home.
When you look at this for patters you get the following,
1: Exposition/Travel/Encounter/Escape (unexpected party to trolls)
2: Exposition/Travel/Encounter/Escape (Rivendell to escaping goblins)
3: Fight-Sneak/Travel/Encounter/Escape (riddles in the dark to eagle rescue)
4: Exposition/Travel/Encounter/Fight (Beorn to spiders)
5: Encounter/Exposition/Escape/Travel (wood elves to barrel riding – Bilbo solo)
6: Exposition/Travel/Encounter/Encounter (Lake town to Smaug tearing apart mountain)
7: Offscreen fight/Social combat/Battle/Endgame (Bard kills Smaug to end of book)
This can be done as seven short sessions (or four if you have more time, a simple mechanic and a desire to see part seven extended out for the big fight). It also shows a lot of escapes and very few fights, with some travel in every session, exposition in 5 of the 7 sessions and – of the encounters – escapes (outwitting the foe without fighting or just running like the dickens) being much more common than fights. For my purposes I’ll plot it as seven sessions, assuming 2-3 hours each.
Here are some takeaways I see
A: intelligent foes will capture their opponents to eat them later, pump them for information or enslave them, so losing a fight just means finding a time to escape. Spotlight time comes from being the one who avoided capture and gets to rescue the group.
B: fights only happen when there’s an unseen power imbalance between the sides or when some emotional or physical need drives it. If you are surrounded 5 to 1 wood elves, you surrender. If your company encounters a single giant spider, it flees. Individual foes (aside from the monster at the end of the quest) will not attack a group, but will attack a lone PC if it thinks it can overwhelm them. A group with a 2 to 1 advantage may attack the group based on circumstance, and the PCs may fight back rather than surrender.
C: educated PCs have to have some way of identifying relevant information from the background material, or being fed that information when needed, so as to serve the same critical role in the narrative. Gandalf doesn’t know everything (and he does make some mistakes) but he knows a lot.
D: evocative descriptions of travel are important, as are ways of conveying hardship and privation. The PCs lose more ponies than hit points; likewise we need a few powerful NPC stopping points which evoke a sense of wonder without the session turning into “here’s the GM’s favorite NPC”.
E: sneaking is important, so the stealth rules matter.
F: some sort of social conflict rules should be in place, but they should privilege inherited status as much as earned merit. There’s also some question as to how much social breadth they carry: Gandalf’s social status is so widespread that it works on everyone’s, Thorin’s is limited and sometimes as much a hindrance as a help and Bard ‘s opinions are honored in part because of who his ancestors were.